Nairobi : Kenyans came out in droves early Wednesday to vote in a referendum on a new constitution, part of the reform process aimed at avoiding a repeat of the violence that followed December 2007’s elections.
The referendum, being held under tight security, is the first national vote since more than 1,300 people died in the tribal clashes that followed opposition accusations that the elections were rigged in favour of President Mwai Kibaki.
“Kenyans have turned out in large numbers, we have seen long lines,” Ahmed Issack Hassan, chairman of the Interim Independent Electoral Commission (IIEC), told journalists at the national tallying centre in Nairobi.
Queues began forming before the polling stations opened at 6 a.m., despite some fears of violence. By mid-morning, there were still long lines.
Voters backed up in a snaking human chain almost a kilometre long at a polling station on Moi Avenue in central Nairobi, while similar scenes were relayed from across the country on national television.
Despite the long queues, voting appeared to be better organised than the last election. In 2007, there were huge issues with voter registration and delays in the results – leading to IIEC taking over from the discredited electoral body in charge at the time.
Innocent Odera waited over three hours to vote in Nairobi’s Kangemi slum. She left with a view to returning later, but still felt the poll was running smoothly.
“You can see people really want to vote, especially the youth,” she said. “The voting has been very peaceful and organised; everybody knows what they have to do.”
One of the major sparks for the previous violence was a delay in announcing the results, which led to rigging suspicions.
This time, broadband modems and low-cost phones will be used to transmit provisional results to the national tallying centre, from where the figures will be broadcast live. Final results are expected within 48 hours of the polls closing.
Just under 12.5 million Kenyans are registered to vote in 27,689 polling stations.
Kibaki and Raila Odinga, who became prime minister as part of the deal that ended the violence, are backing the constitution, reducing the risk of trouble between their Kikuyu and Luo tribes and their allies.
Both men cast their votes in the morning. Odinga called the poll an historic occasion.
“It is a day they (Kenyans) have been awaiting for a very long time,” Odinga said after casting his ballot at Old Kibera Primary School in Nairobi. “From the reports I have received, it is (going) peacefully all over the country and we want it to remain that way.”
The run-up to the vote has been generally peaceful, although grenade attacks at a rally opposing the constitution killed at least five people at a park in central Nairobi in June. Nobody has been charged in connection with the blasts.
Some 64,000 security officers have been deployed around the country, with particular focus on the Rift Valley, which is viewed by many as a potential flashpoint.
Analysts say some Kalenjin leaders, opposed to reform that could see landowners lose vast acreages dished out through cronyism under previous regimes, have stoked ethnic tensions in the region by playing up on the emotive land issue.
Kalenjin militia armed with machetes murdered and forcibly evicted Kikuyus, who they see as interlopers in the Rift Valley, following the presidential elections. Revenge attacks followed.
However, much of the opposition to the constitution has been led by Christian church leaders, who are angry at over the inclusion of clauses allowing abortion on medical grounds and legitimising Kadhi courts – Muslim courts which deal with largely family matters.
Despite the vocal ‘no’ movement, opinion polls have shown that around 60 percent of registered voters are likely to back the constitution, which would replace the document created after Kenya gained independence from Britain in 1963.
The constitution aims to peg back the power of the president through establishing a two-tier parliament and decentralising power. The position of prime minister would also be cut and the number of ministers, who would be appointed from outside parliament, slashed.
Many believe that transferring some control from the executive branch would reduce the stakes in future presidential elections. In the past, whichever tribe has gained control of the presidency has seen great benefit.